Columbine – Perspective and Tolerance

Ten years ago yesterday, I was working at the 9-1-1 center. Even as professionals who were trained and experienced enough to expect the unexpected, the Columbine massacre put a lot of us back on our heels, trying to assess the objective details of the incident; the whats and hows, how many victims, how many suspects, who was in Command, how information was being managed.

Over the years I’ve collected a lot of reports from the various agencies that either played a direct role in managing the incident, or acted in a review capacity. Their findings, and the actions taken on a collective basis by the various arms of government (including public education), make up the bulk of my interest and knowledge base in this and other similar tragedies.

I really didn’t have much concern or interest about why the two young men would engage in such violent contempt toward their fellow human beings. However, I recently picked up Denver freelance journalist Dave Cullen’s book on the massacre, and have been intrigued by the first couple of chapters, much of which incorporates the journal entries and letters of Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold.

While many seem unwilling to draw any more public attention to the killers or their motivations (Oprah Winfrey being the most noteworthy), I’m still undecided on how much of this is necessary to try to understand perhaps what is beyond our comprehension or capabilities. I guess I’ll just see what the book looks like beyond Chapter 2. If it becomes too melodramatic or psychoanalytical, I’m putting it down. I believe that some things are not meant for us to understand.

The only other perspective that I think is relevant amid the cacophony of reporting and personal accounts is as a parent, public safety professional, and civil liberties advocate. From these vantage points, changes made in the wake of Columbine have been a mixed bag in terms of both effectiveness and intent.

The Sentinel’s reporting in Sunday’s edition focused on events that occurred locally after Columbine, and the response of government and local school officials to both events. Additional mention was made of “zero-tolerance” policies, extensive security measures, and comprehensive emergency planning and response efforts that have been ramped up as well.

Some of these efforts have resulted in the prevention of potentially tragic occurrences, such as the 2004 Fruita Middle School “hit list” incident involving five students, one of whom brought a gun to the school. Not reported in Sunday’s account was how this particular incident illustrated the need for consistency in the application of policies and due diligence; at least one of the involved students was the child of a law enforcement officer.

In contrast to the above example is the establishment of a network of School Resource Officers among several local law enforcement agencies, along with the hiring of a full-time Safety Coordinator at District 51. This dedicated group of officers, while having a positive impact on the

mitigation of a number of issues, has also enabled District 51 to develop the means to keep many incidents off of the radar of the media or parental community, by instructing staff to contact their Resource Officer instead of the county’s central dispatch to report incidents, even if that officer may not be on campus.

I believe that this practice puts a misplaced priority on maintaining secrecy over effective management of the incident, while creating a double standard for public safety system access and the potential for confusion in true emergency situations.

The slippery slope of “zero tolerance” has not reared its ugly head here as much as it has elsewhere. The Sentinel’s editorial this morning cites a rather grievous example of the potential for abuse of these policies by over-zealous school personnel. Hopefully the Supreme Court will recognize this, by affirming the female student’s 4th Amendment right not to be strip-searched for Ibuprofen.

Zero tolerance for weapons, or any representation thereof, would seem to make sense on the surface, until you consider the case of the honor student in the Cherry Creek School District south of Denver, who was expelled in February for having three fake wooden rifles used by her drill team in her car on school property.

The school district responded to the significant public and professional outcry by saying that they were only following the state law that requires an expulsion. Fortunately, a Republican State Senator has introduced a revision to this law which will apply the expulsion requirement to actual firearms only.

Despite some of the interesting commentary from the school Principals interviewed by the Sentinel, it is becoming readily apparent from a number of perspectives that zero tolerance equals zero common sense. I expect that continued efforts at allowing discretion in some of these areas will be put forth and enacted.

At the same time, I hope that greater emphasis will be placed on transparency and consistency in the reporting and management of incidents that occur on our school campuses. As parents, neighbors, and taxpayers, we deserve to know what kind of environment we are sending our children into, what kinds of issues are being dealt with that impact our neighborhoods, and what kind of organizational effectiveness our tax dollars are paying for.

As my only child prepares to leave the public school system, I’m thankful for the dedicated staff of teachers and administrators that made his school experience a (mostly) safe one. I look forward to continuing improvement in communication between administrators, citizens, public safety, and the media in its varying forms.

In a focus area where there are so many stakeholders and so many varying agendas and priorities, the better we are able to communicate and understand, the safer we will be.

Have a safe and blessed week ahead.

This entry was posted in Books, Local, Media, Schools, Security. Bookmark the permalink.

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